Someone asked me the other day what Kenya was like. This past July I spent two weeks there for a business ethics conference with my daughter. This was the first time anyone asked me that question, and I had to think about it.
The first thing that came to mind was the absolute quiet of the Masai Mara preserve, where hundreds of thousands of wildebeests passed within yards of us without making a sound. Not a stomp of hoof, rustle of grass, or snort. Nothing. Then there was the wind that swept down from the mountains across the dry plain and through our jeep. And elephants everywhere, nearly hidden, chewing silently.
The rhythm of the land was measured, unrushed, deliberate, and focused without being strained.
Two weeks in a new country is just enough time to figure out how to run the shower and pronounce the names of the people you’re with. So I do not speak with any authority, which reminds me of the joke they tell about a tourist, an expat, and a native, all of whom discover a fly in their drink. The tourist gets hysterical, the expat fishes it out, and the native drinks around it. Still, first-impressions can be revealing. I’ll try not to get hysterical.
My first impression was that the people of Kenya have that same measured, unrushed focus. Not all of them, of course, but enough to make me wonder whether silence and wind have become part of their collective psyche over the generations, the millennia. When you talk to them, it’s as if they do not stand in front of you but in the distance, thinking things over and staring at the ground. If I took that much time back home, they’d either run me down or lock me up. Maybe run me down and then lock me up.
I also noticed something missing in Kenya, something that is pervasive in America. Aggression. I did not find anyone in Nairobi and the surrounding areas we visited to be aggressive or belligerent. And I was in different places, from shopping malls and tourist sites (Karen Blixen Museum) to villages and orphanages. There was none of the repressed hostility you find, for example, in New York, San Francisco, or St. Louis. That is not to say that they don’t have problems, from urban crime and political instability to tribal tensions and corruption on a massive scale. But the everyday experience, my experience, did not reflect that.
A friend of mine, a Brazilian, once referred to Americans as aggressive. He said it in passing, not to make a point. When asked about it, he explained that most Brazilians believe we like to go to war, although he thought it came from our history of westward expansion and conquest of the wilderness, not from our psychic makeup as some claim (e.g., Marxists, New School theorists).
Whether this aggressive streak comes from our history, psyche, capitalism, or something entirely different, it is there. It no doubt helped make us who we are and gave us abundance, but that does not mean it should continue to define us. Perhaps, as Noam Chomsky points out, it isn’t the people who are aggressive but government leaders and policies that lead to ongoing conflict across the globe.
I may be talking through my hat (actually, I can’t since I left it on the plane), but it is a truism that we can learn valuable lessons from other cultures just as they can learn many things from us. From my limited experience, I would say Kenya would be a good place to start, especially given their national “character.” The Jesuits already have begun work there.
Let’s just make sure we merge the best of both cultures and not, as in John F. Kennedy’s description of Washington, DC, combine the hospitality of the North with the efficiency of the South.